Obama: ‘New beginning’ with Muslims

CAIRO | Seeking no less than a restart of relations with the Islamic world, President Obama on Thursday conceded past wrongs, quoted from the Koran and even invoked his full name - all in an appeal to Muslims from Indonesia to Morocco to unite around common ideals of rights, freedom, security and respect.

In calling for a “new beginning,” he singled out some Islamic nations as examples of religious tolerance, he delivered a stern lecture to Holocaust deniers, doubters of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and Palestinian terrorists, and he harked back to the glory of Islamic civilizations through the centuries.

Using his 55-minute speech - the longest of his young presidency - to about 2,500 people at Cairo University, Mr. Obama said that rather than a fundamental disagreement, the U.S. has always held deep respect for and good will toward Islam, dating back to one of the nation’s earliest documents, the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli.

“We have a responsibility to join together on behalf of the world; we seek a world where extremists no longer threaten our people and American troops have come home; a world where Israelis and Palestinians are each secure in a state of their own, and nuclear energy is used for peaceful purposes; a world where governments serve their citizens, and the rights of all God’s children are respected,” Mr. Obama said.

The speech, which made good on a campaign promise to deliver a major address from a Muslim country, was translated into 13 languages and spread via e-mail and Web video around the globe - an effort to turn technology, which has been a powerful recruiting tool for radical Islamic terrorists, to a tool of outreach and influence for the U.S.

The president weighed in on tough issues that divide the Middle East, saying the U.S. “does not accept the legitimacy” of Israel’s settlements in Palestinian territory and all but accusing Palestinians of cowardice when terrorists “shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus.”

He also balanced acknowledgment of the U.S. role in the 1953 coup that toppled Iran’s democratically elected government with a call for Iran to forgo developing nuclear weapons, saying pursuing atomic arms could spark “a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.”

Mr. Obama also avoided some thorny subjects. He did not use the word “terrorist,” and he did not take on the human rights record of his host country, Egypt. He never mentioned Osama bin Laden, though he did mention al Qaeda three times, saying in no uncertain terms that the terrorist organization was responsible for killing nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001.

“These are not opinions to be debated; these are facts to be dealt with,” Mr. Obama said.

He warned that allowing differences to define relations between Muslims and the United States gives ammunition to a small but potent minority of violent extremists.

Radical Palestinian groups called the speech an attempt to “mislead” the world. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the president needs to go beyond “talking, speech and slogans.” Israel’s new government generally praised the sentiments but was silent on Mr. Obama’s call for action to halt settlements.

In the U.S., Republicans and Democrats said Mr. Obama’s speech was thoughtful, though some Republicans worried that Mr. Obama was making a mistake by equating calls for action between Israel and Palestinians.

As the Obama administration had hoped, reaction to the speech poured in from around the world on blogs and social networking Internet sites such as Twitter and Facebook, and through mobile phone text messages.

“President Obama said what I want to hear. I had tears in my eyes, because his words touched my soul. I believed every words he said and I am sure he is sincere, but we wants action not words. We want to feel that America is friend to us not against us. We want to be treated fairly by you. Thanks,” read a text from Saudi Arabia, one of both positive and negative text-message reactions posted on the Web by the U.S. State Department.

Michael Kagan, a law professor at the American University in Cairo, wrote on his personal blog Thursday that the speech showed “a way of engaging with the Arab/Muslim world without being an apologist.”

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About the Author

Christina Bellantoni

Christina Bellantoni is a White House correspondent for The Washington Times in Washington, D.C., a post she took after covering the 2008 Democratic presidential campaigns. She has been with The Times since 2003, covering state and Congressional politics before moving to national political beat for the 2008 campaign. Bellantoni, a San Jose native, graduated from UC Berkeley with ...

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